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Teaching kindness and empathy to children

Published on: December 01, 2006

Teaching empathyWe live in a world that's downright daunting. Expressions like "lockdown" and "road rage" have become part of the American lexicon. Fear-driven parents are left to search far and wide for safe havens for their children; havens where troubles melt like lemon drops and cyber-predators don't lurk in MySpace.

When my own kids were growing up, they biked solo around the neighborhood, walked alone and unarmed to the school bus stop and stayed with unseasoned 13-year-old babysitters who, as far as I know, came without background checks.

We get that the times, they are a-changin', but most of us met the 21st century unprepared for the disharmony that's invaded it. Which has left everyone wondering, where has all the kindness gone -- and how do we get it back?

One way to start, educators are saying, is by teaching our children social values such as self-discipline, respect and, perhaps most important of all, empathy.

Here's the thinking: If kids learn to understand how others think and feel, they will better understand how their choices affect them and their peers. Ideally, they'll grow up with a consciousness that rejects hostility and violence.

"The idea is to decrease aggressive behaviors and increase social competence," says Claudia Glaze, director of client relations for the Committee for Children. The Seattle-based organization develops classroom courses that focus on youth violence, bullying and personal safety, in addition to child abuse and literacy.

The Committee created Second Step, a social-skills curriculum for kids ages 4 to 14, that teaches social-emotional skills such as empathy, impulse control and anger management. The programs are used throughout the U.S. and in Canada, Northern Europe, Japan and Scandinavia.

Second Step is based on the conviction that qualities such as empathy can be learned at school and at home. "When kids learn to take another person's perspective, they have an 'aha!' moment," notes Joan Cole Duffell, director of partnership development at the Committee for Children. "They suddenly realize they're not the only person in the room."

Born to empathize?

Researchers studying the biological origin of empathy (they're called "developmental neuroscientists") have found that infants are born with the ability to imitate. We've all seen it: the newborn who copies his dad's facial expression; the baby who shakes the rattle just like her mother. That kind of imitation lays the foundation for empathy, scientists say.

"We believe that when infants imitate, they are becoming 'like the other person' in action, with simple body movements," says Andrew Meltzoff, Ph.D, co-director of the Center for Mind, Brain & Learning at the University of Washington. "Later that can flower into empathy, which is the ability to become like the other person in emotion and perspective."

What does all this mean? The capacity for imitation's already wired into the DNA; our job is to help it grow into real emotional empathy and the ability to be compassionate. "Whether it blossoms or lies dormant largely depends on whether it is nurtured," Michele Borba writes in her book, Building Moral Intelligence.

Meltzoff suggests parents begin nurturing empathy by playing imitative, reciprocal games with their babies. These can include using simple facial expressions such as opening their mouths, thrusting out their tongues, even just smiling. A few months later, parents can wave to their babies and play "peek-a-boo."

As they get older, talk to them about their day -- and listen to what they say, advises David A. Levine, author of Teaching Empathy: A Blueprint for Caring Compassion and Community. Levine calls this "high-level" listening.

"Ask open-ended questions, such as 'Help me understand what happened,'" Levine says. "Put effort and energy into understanding what your child or someone else went through. Then reflect back his or her feelings with a comment like, 'You must have been really disappointed."

Encourage kids to see other points of view, says Christy Stapleton, a clinical therapist at the Child and Family Guidance Center in Tacoma. "Take every opportunity to say to your child, 'How would you feel if that were you? What would you do?'"

Read books to your children that deal with feelings, Duffell suggests. "Engage in a dialogue about the book," she says. "Ask your child, 'How do you think this person is feeling now?'"

Find ways for your kids to show care and concern for others, Glaze says. "Maybe a neighbor is ill. Ask your children, 'How do we want to show him we care?' As they get older, help them find volunteer activities. Help them recognize kindness in all its forms."

And support school programs that help build social and emotional skills, says Duffell. "Not every child learns those skills at home. You can't assume every parent is mature; some are kids themselves."

Schools must attend to the whole child, she argues. "As citizens of the world's most powerful country, kids in the U.S. need to learn how to stand in other people's shoes," she says. "After all, one day these kids may be sitting at a negotiating table."

Linda Morgan, ParentMap's associate editor, writes frequently on education issues.

How to teach empathy

  • Show empathy to your children. Young children (like all of us) love to receive empathy. Research shows that parenting with empathy and emotional guidance encourages healthy emotional growth.
  • Provide simple, clear explanations about how other people feel when they are sad or hurt. This is especially important if your child has caused these feelings in another. ("It makes Carlos feel bad when you call him names.") When this happens, be firm as you explain how these feelings work.
  • Be a good role model for empathy. Children are some of the best copycats around, and they are likely to copy the ways they see you treat people.
  • Praise your toddler's early acts of empathy -- they are wonderful signs of learning to care about other people. When your toddler gives up his favorite toy to a younger sibling who's crying, make sure he knows you appreciate his action.
  • Don't expect empathy every time -- young children are still learning how emotions work, and how people get along with others. Encourage empathy -- but don't expect perfection.

Source: Talaris Research Institute

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